Tennis

Couch: Federer's loss to Nadal shouldn't obscure his gains

Rafael Nadal
Roger Federer has not beaten Rafael Nadal in a major since 2007.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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Reality is reality and facts are facts. But the reality and facts of Rafael Nadal’s easy win over Roger Federer in Friday’s Australian Open semifinal are based solely on what you expected.

What I mean is this: If people expected Federer to beat Nadal, then they really haven’t been paying attention lately. He was never going to win this match. Cold reality is that Nadal is far better now than Federer.

But the fact is this: These past two weeks have been a massive success for the reality of Roger Federer.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal

CLASSIC RIVALRY

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have given us plenty of historic moments over the years. Relive the matches.

Jack Nicklaus used to say that he never wanted to be a ceremonial golfer, that he was there to win. Without changes, Federer was going to be just for show by the end of this year. He might not have been in the top 20.

Instead, at 32, he has already not only taken the first steps back to relevance but also placed himself back in position to win majors.

“I needed a good moment again,” he said, “because I’ve been going through a tough time for some time.”

If you thought Federer’s re-emergence over the past two weeks with a new coach, Stefan Edberg, new racket and new attacking mentality meant that he would beat Nadal, then you might have woken up to a new reality Friday. If you didn’t know that Federer has slipped, then your reality is two steps behind.

That’s why I didn’t see Friday’s match, which Nadal won 7-6 (4), 6-3, 6-3, the same way most people will see it. To me, this was an important first step for Federer. A mandatory first step.

Nadal, not Federer, is the greatest player of all time. And Nadal is in his prime. We can talk about that on Sunday, after Nadal beats Stan Wawrinka to win the title and become the first man in the open era to win each major twice. For now, the issue is that Federer has rewritten his reality these past two weeks.

He’s not going to be No. 1 again. He’s not going to regain the step he has lost. He isn’t going to be able to beat Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray all in the same tournament again, either.

SLAM DANCE

Take a look back at each of Rafael Nadal's 13 Grand Slam titles.

It’s going to take the perfect storm for Federer to win another major or two, but that can, and does, happen in tennis. And to get this far, this fast after making changes is actually amazing.

“What I like to do is take it to the guy,” Federer told reporters. “I like to be in command. That’s what I was able to do now the last couple of weeks. So that’s very encouraging.”

This was his first major with the bigger racket, Edberg’s coaching and the attacking mindset. Federer is four months into re-inventing himself at a time when most tennis players can’t do it, or don’t bother.

He is just starting over. And in Australia, he beat Murray, who has surpassed him, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who bashes the ball in the style that has been beating Federer.

Then, he lost to Nadal. That is no crime. No one would have beaten Nadal the way he played Friday. There is a decent chance Nadal will win all four majors this year.

Friday’s match wasn’t a final exam for Federer. It was a field test. He was taking his new game out for a spin to see how it would work against Nadal, the guy he can’t ever seem to beat anymore.

What he should have found was that he can’t just flip his serve into Nadal’s backhand and then come to the net behind it. That works against Murray because Murray can be sort of passive. Against Nadal, Federer has to be aggressive with the serve. When he steps into the midcourt and runs around the ball to hit a forehand, he needs to attack to Nadal’s backhand. When he does that, it pressures Nadal to keep hitting deeper.

Nadal’s passing shots are just too powerful and precise for Federer not to be aggressive on his approach shots.

The drop-volley works. Federer’s master touch can still be effective in the modern, attacking game.
It was just good to see that when Federer lost points, it was oftentimes because he was being too aggressive.

See, it’s hard to explain, but when Federer has played Nadal the past few years, Nadal has dictated the points and pushed Federer all over the place, and backward. Federer would need miracle shots to win. Friday, at least way more than in the past, Federer was looking to step in and attack.

ROGER, ROGER

Roger Federer has won a few trophies in his day. A look at his Grand Slam triumphs.

It’s something about throwing a punch rather than just being able to take one well.

The problem is, it’s not easy to get to the net when you’re playing Nadal. He hits hard and deep, and you can’t exactly come charging to the net when your opponent is knocking you backward.

Edberg was always an attacker. And he’s going to have to show Federer how well that first set actually went.

Like I said, the perfect storm can still get Federer another major. That means maybe Murray beats Nadal? The truth is, Federer’s past two major titles have been a perfect storm for him, too, where he has been able to avoid big hitters and beat Murray, a thinker, in the final.

Reality is that Federer had dropped yet another level last year. Without changes the past few months, he never again would have accomplished what he did these past two weeks.

He lost his nerve at times Friday. At times, he dropped back into his old, passive style. That’s OK. This racket, this mentality just don’t feel right to Federer yet. They aren’t natural yet.

It’s important Federer sees that.

“That’s the way I want to go,” he said. “I have a belief this could be a very good year for me again.”
Could be. He could even win the French Open.

That said, I’ll take Nadal.

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